Michigan tart-cherry growers win symbolic trade fight

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Tart cherries are shaken onto a conveyor belt during the July harvest at Cherry Bay Farm in Leelanau County.  Growers of tart cherries in Michigan have seen their prices cut in half as U.S. imports of tart cherry juice concentrate from Turkey has increased 89 percent in five years.

After years of facing below-production cost prices, efforts by Michigan tart-cherry growers finally are bearing fruit, an indication they hope there is more to come.

Following a federal investigation, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation last week, instigating a half-cent tariff per liter on cherry juice imported from Turkey starting Nov. 1. Although the change is far from solving the growers' woes, it is a step forward to preserving a small industry that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to Northwestern Michigan every year.

"I think it’s giving cherry growers in Michigan hope that there might be a complete solution to the problem on the horizon," said Ben LaCross, a second-generation cherry grower from Cedar. "At least this sends a signal that they’re looking at it." 

Trump's decision revokes duty-free status for cherry juice from Turkey under the United States' Generalized System of Preferences, a trade category that eliminates tariffs for developing nations. Turkey is the top producer of tart cherries in the world.

According to the Dewitt-based Cherry Marketing Institute, Turkey subsidizes its cherry growers and producers, allowing them to "dump" their product on U.S. soil. LaCross said U.S. growers need to make about $30 per gallon for a small profit, but Turkish cherry juice enters the U.S. at $13 per gallon. The tariff would add about 2 cents more.

As Michigan cherry growers, who represent 75 percent of the U.S. industry, have had to make cuts, remove old trees and diversify their production, they hope the tariff will provide some relief, though more work is to be done.

LaCross said the industry now is shifting its focus on Turkey's attempt to grow its market share of dried tart cherries. The industry also has considered pursuing an anti-dumping case against Turkey to implement a countervailing duty on its imports, but that could cost millions of dollars.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she would support an industry anti-dumping case effort. She said new wording in the 2018 Farm Bill, which is still pending in Congress, would increase quality standards for cherry imports.

"We are very proud of the fact that we are No. 1 in tart cherry production and have the best quality in the world," Stabenow said. "Now we want to make sure the cherry industry gets the full relief that they need. They should not be allowed at less of a cost to dump low-quality cherry juice into our marketplace."

Stabenow added that earlier this year, the U.S. Agriculture Department purchased $25 million in tart cherries from U.S. growers to be used in school lunches and nutritional assistance programs.

LaCross said the ultimate hope is that the U.S. Commerce Department would pursue an anti-dumping case itself, though that power is rarely used.

In February, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, introduced a bill that would create a permanent task force in the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration to investigate dumping and subsidies on imported goods, particularly for small- and medium-sized businesses that often lack the resources to bring violations forward.

"Hopefully it will go all the way," LaCross said of a self-initiated dumping case. "That would be the greatest help for tart-cherry farmers in Michigan."